MO Bicentennial Minutes: William Becknell Opens the Santa Fe Trail
This week we mark the bicentennial of the first successful trading expedition from Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail. September 1, 1821, a party of men led by Captain William Becknell departed from old Franklin on the Missouri River, crossed at the Arrow Rock ferry, and went on to Mexico. They hauled goods they hoped to sell or trade in Santa Fe. Several earlier attempts by Americans to use this route were unsuccessful. One expedition led by August Pierre Chouteau in 1817 got as far as the upper Arkansas River before Spanish authorities arrested them. The Spanish considered trade to be exclusively theirs, and jailed Chouteau and his party for a time. Mexican authorities were more accommodating.
Becknell’s party arrived in Santa Fe on November 15, and stayed and sold their goods for nearly a month. With a $300 investment in goods, Becknell profited by nearly $6000. Becknell and one companion began the return journey December 13, and arrived back in Missouri in January 1822.
A second trip outfitted with 21 men, three wagons, and more goods left Franklin on May 22. The trade proved advantageous to both American and Mexican interests.
Despite high duty paid on goods imported into Santa Fe, traders made huge profits. In the first 20 years, traders sold or traded over $3 million worth of goods, including mules, furs, and Mexican coin and bullion. In fact, this trade contributed substantially to the influx of mules to Missouri, as well as providing a financial boon to the state with the influx of silver. By 1860, there were over 3000 wagons and 9000 men engaged in the Santa Fe trade, including businesses in southeast Missouri.